Day's events impose sea change on Gore

By David M. Shribman, Globe Columnist, 12/5/2000

ASHINGTON - For weeks Al Gore has been trying to sail against the breezes. Throughout this extraordinary ordeal he has kept afloat, showing more seamanship in the period following Election Day than at any time before it.

But now the political winds are arrayed against him, and barring a swift and substantial shift, he is plainly running out of time - and safe harbors.

Yesterday's ruling by Judge N. Sanders Sauls in Leon County Circuit Court delivered so substantial a victory to George W. Bush that the vice president was left with little hope and no port besides an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. That appeal was filed immediately.

The election isn't over yet. But the tide of momentum has turned, and the power of the political undertow is in this proposition: There is almost certainly no Gore friend, relative, partisan, or lawyer alive who can honestly argue this morning that he would rather be in the vice president's position than in the Texas governor's.

Yesterday Bush won the most important ruling of the political overtime, a denial of Gore's plea that the election was tarnished and that ballots should be recounted. Each day that passes without ballots being counted cuts into Gore's chances of prevailing before the Dec. 12 deadline to settle election disputes - and, as important, cuts into Gore's chances of remaining a plausible president in the public's eye.

From the start, Gore's case has seemed plausible - and almost impossible to prove. From the start, Bush has had the numbers on his side - and an ironclad determination not to examine the ballots again.

In his ruling yesterday, Sauls noted that it was not enough for Gore and his Democratic allies to argue that new counts of ballots might change the election results. The burden on Gore was, and remains in the Florida Supreme Court, to prove that the new counts would change the results.

Gore's lawyers believe they can make that case, and of course the state's highest court sided with Gore in the earlier ruling that the US Supreme Court sent back to it yesterday.

But this long election aftermath has proven that politics and the law aren't easily separated, and Gore's support in the broader court of public opinion shows signs of fraying. Indeed, a new Opinion Dynamics poll taken for Fox News says the public believes, 50 percent to 29 percent, that Bush has behaved in a more presidential manner than Gore.

The task ahead for Bush is simple. He must show confidence but restraint, fight the Gore appeal in the state court in Tallahassee but mostly do little to affect the direction of a train that seems to be traveling his way.

The task for Gore is far more difficult, as it has been at nearly every step of this extraordinary election overtime.

He plans to press on - awaiting judgment by the state Supreme Court and in a separate case out of Seminole County - but cannot press too hard. He needs to argue with passion, but must consider his position with dispassion. He will proceed with planning his administration, but has to give more than passing thought to his withdrawal from this contest.

The burden is fully on him, and that burden is not simply a legal one. If he manages to sail against these winds and prevail, then the manner in which he does so will affect his early days as president, his relations with a divided Congress and even, it is not too early to speculate, his prospects for re-election in 2004.

But if he succumbs to these winds, then the manner in which he does so is equally important, not only for a man young enough for another run at the presidency four years hence but also for the political establishment of which he is an exemplar and for the political system that has given succor (and pain) to two generations of men named Albert Gore.

This remarkable political drama now enters a new phase, perhaps the beginning of the end, perhaps only the end of the beginning.

If Gore is rebuffed by the state Supreme Court, then his options dwindle and his likelihood of carrying his protest farther is slight, according to key Democrats.

If he does win in the state Supreme Court, then the election could well come down to even more disputes about chads, a competition between two competing slates of electors, or a final selection in the Congress in the first week of January.

The Gore team now knows that its options are few, its chances long. The Bush team now knows that it is in a commanding position. But both camps know that just as the election itself defied prediction, so, too does its aftermath.